Seeing Our Adolescents Rise
Seeing Our Adolescents Rise (SOAR) has helped hundreds of young people spread their wings. They support youth in their community by ensuring basic needs are met, exposing them to new experiences, and everything in between. Yet, if you had talked to their leaders at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, they would have told you that they might need to close their doors.
Today, the organization has access to a critical tool: flexible financing. And today, the nonprofit is ready to fly.
Receiving a loan specifically tailored to their needs and receiving coaching about how they could use it helped the organization’s capital leaders overcome their initial apprehension about taking on debt. Now, they are prepared to soar over long-standing barriers and deepen their impact on the young people they serve.
SOARing over barriers
Founded by Chantae Thomas in 2012, the Denver-based organization's mission is to encourage young adults to invest in their futures. SOAR provides youth and adolescents with whatever they need to achieve their goals, whether that looks like providing a basic need like food or clothing or exposing them to new experiences.
They also bring in young people as program co-creators; kids tell SOAR what they’re interested in, and SOAR pairs them with a one-on-one team member who plans activities based on the child’s interests. “Our goal is to find what they're passionate about and what they really like or what they're interested in,” says Chantae. “Then we try to place those things in front of them to give them an opportunity to grow.”
When young people arrive at SOAR, they often feel trapped by their circumstances. Ninety-eight percent of the youth the organization serves are currently or have recently been involved with the juvenile legal system. Many of them are actively working to overcome the traumas of the experiences that got them there – and the further trauma caused by the system itself.
“I think the challenges could be so vast by the time we get in [that] there's a reason why we're there at that point,” Chantae says. “Some of the basic things that we always check: ‘Do you guys have food? Do you guys have clothing? Do you guys have those basic necessities?’”
SOAR is determined to help each child see beyond the “hypothetical four walls” of their situation. Sometimes that looks like partnering with food banks to make sure a child’s basic needs are met. Sometimes it looks like after-school care and homework support. And sometimes it’s taking young people on a trip into the beautiful natural landscape just outside the city's borders – introducing them to activities that are exciting, therapeutic, and just plain fun. And always, it engages the young person as an agent in their own journey – they tell SOAR what they need or what they’re interested in, and SOAR makes it happen.
Smiling, Chantae recalls a recent kayaking trip that she led with SOAR mentors in the Rocky Mountains. “One of the kids was like ‘Oh, my God! This is like the best, most fun day I've ever had in my entire life! We never got to do anything like this... ever.'”
For young people who enter the program having experienced significant trauma, moments of joy like these are so, so important. “That was the moment that I was like, ‘we need to do adventure therapy,’” Chantae says. “That's one of the stories that said, ‘Okay, we're on the right path.’”
The impact SOAR has on the young people it serves couldn't be clearer. But during COVID, the organization faced the very real prospect of closing its doors.
“I remember telling my program director... ‘I think we're going to have to call it quits,” Chantae says. "We saw it was working...but we needed time and money.”
Chantae found plenty of opportunities for financing, but none of these options would work for SOAR. Government contracts pay SOAR after they complete a program, not before. Private lenders expected SOAR to pay them back well before that contract money would come through. Time and time again, the funding Chantae found forced her to jump through countless hoops – and created cash flow issues that made her work begin to feel impossible.
NFF offered SOAR a $50,000 bridge loan through our Metro Denver Nonprofit Loan Fund, a zero-interest loan fund for community-centered Denver area nonprofits led by and serving people of color. Having money available immediately allowed Chantae to smooth over some of the cash flow issues she had faced. That financing freed up Chantae to actually run her organization instead of spending the majority of her time cobbling together restricted funding from dozens of different sources.
NFF also paired this loan with technical assistance that helped Chantae and her board overcome their initial apprehension about taking on debt. “[The NFF consultant] came to our board meetings [and] coached our board around the decision before we made a final decision,” Chantae says. “He gave them some education around what the lending process would look like and what the repayment process would look like.”
“You don't realize by just having that money, how many doors open for you,” Chantae says. “It's not even about the capacity that it's giving you in the moment...it opens up the capacity beyond what you even could imagine.”
Spreading its wings
Shortly after NFF offered SOAR a loan, another funder awarded the organization a significant grant. Together, this funding allowed SOAR to transform their one-off adventures into a dedicated program.
This funding has also allowed Chantae to return to a place of dreaming. “I'm so excited,” she says. “I think our [adventure therapy] program is going to grow.”
The opportunities SOAR offers encourage children to look beyond their hypothetical four walls. The opportunities that offer access to finance allow nonprofits like SOAR to look beyond their own.
And what Chantae sees when she breaks down those walls? “Growing the capacity of our programs, in our reach, within Denver and beyond; Colorado and beyond would really be my goal. Nationwide!”
“I don't know what that looks like entirely,” she goes on. “But I know that I want to be a home and a place for all of the kids that are going through it.”
“To be able to see the smiles that I see from our kids – and these are like, tough teenagers! But [to see] a tough teenager smile and laugh, and have fun, and find community that's safe and encouraging, and positive more than anything, that’s the best day ever.”